Michelle Cerrone, a researcher at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology, focuses on advancing the field’s knowledge of effective STEM education, teacher development, and the role of digital media in K-12 classrooms. Currently, she is contributing her expertise in survey design as an investigator on EDC’s National Science Foundation-funded TwISLE (Twitter and Informal Science Learning and Engagement) study team. TwISLE is one of the first efforts to explore the ways in which people use social media venues like Twitter to engage in public science discussions. In this post, Michelle shares some of TwISLE’s early findings on how people perceive and use Twitter and Facebook.
We know that social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with the people we know, while also providing venues to make meaningful connections with those we don’t. The pervasiveness of these social media giants has also meant new venues for public discourse and shifts in the ways adults learn about the changing world. Those interested in science are increasingly turning to social media outlets for news and up-to-date information. As users of social media move seamlessly between different platforms, the research community is still making sense of what it all means.
So far, much of the research on social media outlets has focused on the volume, rather than the nature, of the communication. In contrast, we are looking at the public’s motivations to engage with—and use information shared by—respected science institutions via social media. As part of this work, we conducted interviews with people who follow informal science institutions on Twitter like museums, zoos, and government science agencies.
The interviewees came from all over the world and had a range of professional backgrounds and experiences using Twitter. All shared an interest in science, however, only six worked in a science-related field. Others worked in areas such as social work, business, design, and photography. There was also a range in interviewees’ experience and use of Twitter. One interviewee was new to Twitter, and was still figuring out how it might fit her personal and professional needs. Although most had been active users of Twitter for several years, there was variation in their level of engagement with other users. Some viewed Twitter as a venue to engage with like-minded people and had built large networks of followers; others were more passive consumers of information and had less interest in connecting with other users.
Our first group of interviewees eagerly described differences in how they use Twitter versus how they use Facebook—another social media giant in the room. We were struck by three areas in which users consistently drew distinctions between the two platforms:
- Types of communities people connect with
- Motivations for use
- Differences in the perceived degree of anonymity
Observations from the Field
Connecting with others – are you my friend or my follower? Although Facebook and Twitter use different terms for users and communication—friends and posts (Facebook) vs. followers and Tweets (Twitter)—their structural premises are nearly identical. Depending on their privacy settings, users of both platforms can share their comments with specific groups of people or make their comments open to the public. Yet our interviews suggest that there are practical differences between the two platforms.
The majority of interviewees who use both platforms told us that there is practically no overlap between their Facebook friends and their Twitter followers. As the name suggests, friends are more likely to be people users know (or knew) in their offline lives (e.g., friends, family, acquaintances). According to one interviewee, “Facebook is strictly for family.”
For Twitter users, there was more variation in users’ community of followers. For some interviewees,their followers are people and organizations they meet and engage with almost exclusively online: “Twitter is the most impersonal of all social media sites. I’m connected to my followers on Twitter, but not beyond.” Other interviewees noted that they follow colleagues or other professional contacts on Twitter. Very few said they connect with their friends and family on Twitter.
When it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family, people turn to Facebook; Twitter is more popular for connecting around professional or personal interests. Facebook provides an online space that—for most users—functions as an extension of their offline lives. Interviewees noted that they mainly use Facebook to remain in contact with friends and family. Although a few said they sometimes post articles and comments about topics related to science and politics, most reported that their activity on Facebook is limited to sharing photographs and commenting on life events.
Interviewees’ comments about Twitter, on the other hand, captured more variation in goals and motivations for use. Twitter emerged as the more popular platform for making professional connections, learning and sharing new information, and engaging around a common interest with like-minded users. Many of the people we spoke with described Twitter as a tool for remaining up-to-date on news and information related to their individual interests. One user described Twitter as “my own personalized news feed.”
Several interviewees mentioned that they use Twitter as a professional resource. This was particularly true for the scientists we interviewed, who typically Tweet and reTweet news and information related to their areas of expertise. One scientist recalled how Twitter played a role in his job search. Members from a search committee of a prospective job position followed him on Twitter prior to the interview and were interested in discussing his Tweets and comments during the interview. For this user and others, Twitter provides a venue to connect with like-minded people around a common interest. One interviewee who describes himself as an “advanced amateur photographer” uses Twitter to connect with other photography enthusiasts around the world. When we asked this user how he attracted over 3,000 followers on Twitter, he noted, “I post thousands of pictures—apparently people like them.” A few interviewees we spoke to use Twitter to learn about events going on in their community, suggesting that Twitter may in fact play a role in our lives offline.
Be yourself, as long as none of your friends are watching. Given the differences in motivations for using Facebook and Twitter, it is not surprising that users also perceive differences in the degree of anonymity afforded by each platform. Several interviewees noted that they are more likely to share their opinions on Twitter. For some of these interviewees, Twitter feels more removed from their personal lives than Facebook because there is little overlap between their Facebook friends and their Twitter followers. For other interviewees, Twitter is completely removed from their personal lives because they use fake names when they Tweet. Some interviewees expressed hesitation about posting their opinions on Facebook, worrying they might offend their friends and family. One interviewee admitted that she is “less stridently feminist on Facebook.” This user likes that Twitter allows her to be anonymous, something that Facebook does not allow: “I deliberately chose to sign up on Twitter semi-anonymously. I use a pseudonym, which you can’t really do on Facebook.”
As we continue our work on the TwISLE project, we will delve deeper into the ways people use Twitter as a venue to connect with people and organizations around a common interest. We are currently developing tools to better understand how and why people use Twitter, and to identify the types of interactions Twitter users have with public science organizations like museums and zoos. Our hope is that by studying these interactions we will better understand how science organizations might use Twitter and other social media outlets to engage followers in science and create opportunities for informal learning.
- Read a related American Evaluation Association (AEA) blog post by Michelle and TwISLE Principal Investigator Daniel Light: "Recruiting Research Participants Via Twitter (or Social Media)."
- Learn more about the TwISLE study, and join Daniel Light and EDC researcher Noah Goodman at the 2016 Annual American Educational Research Association conference, where they will present findings from TwISLE.
- Read an article by Michelle, EDC Distinguished Scholar Babette Moeller, and Marvin Cohen (Senior Faculty Member at Bank Street College of Education): “Constructing Online Communities of Practice.”
- Explore our Technology and Learning and STEM work.